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Desires of a Trappist

Monks at Spencer Abbey during Vespers

The daily life of the Trappist communities can easily be summed up by the Benedictine motto "ora et labora"; "Pray and work". While putting my notes together for this blog, I began to realize that I should write about what it is a Trappist monk desires. What is it about these communities that attracts men and women to enter this order of religious? So this will now be a two part blog. Today I will give you more background on the lifestyle of the Trappists, which will allow you to understand why and how their daily lives are scheduled and lived. The daily schedule of the Trappists is centered around the two tasks described in the Benedictine motto: "ora et labora", "pray and work". But before we get into the modern schedule of the Trappists in the US, I should give you a history of the order that has led them to their current lifestyle.


If you have read my first blog (What is a Trappist?), then some of this will be familiar to you. In the sixth century, St. Benedict of Nursia wrote a book of rules for monastics living in community under the direction of an abbot. These rules would become the foundation for the Benedictine religious order. This book of rules is very detailed. It covers subjects such as the structure of the communities, the responsibilities of the abbot and the monks, punishments for disobedience, how to treat guests, how the brothers should interact with one another, the role of prayer in the community, the importance of manual labor and much more. In all there are 73 chapters instructing the monastics on how they should live and be as a community and individually.

In the eleventh century a group of reformist monks believed that their order of Benedictines had strayed from following the Rule in the strictest sense and started a new order at Citeaux Abbey in France. This order became known as the Cistercians. There was yet another reform movement in the seventeenth century. This time within the Cistercian order at La Trappe Abbey, also in France. Once again, the monks of La Trappe abbey felt they were lax in observing the Rules in the strictest sense. This group of monks thus became the first order of Trappists also known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance, as they are formally known.


From the seventeenth century until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the daily routine in the Trappist monasteries did not vary between communities. Their daily schedule revolved around the rules that were emphasized during the Cistercian reform movement. To understand how their daily lives were structured, we must first discuss some of the specific rules that are the foundation for the Benedictine orders, which would later be reformed by the Cistercians and then again by the Trappists. Men wanting to become Benedictine monks had to take a vow of obedience to the abbot, a vow of stability (committing to stay at the monastery they entered), and a vow of conversion of life (fidelity to the monastic life which include poverty and chastity). The central rule that is observed by all orders is that of prayer and chanting of the Psalms. The Psalter (the book of Psalms) was originally chanted in its entirety every day during nine different prayer services. This required most of the monk's time to be in chapel or prayer and left very little time for manual labor. Often times, lay people or peasants from the surrounding area would perform the manual labor around the monastery. In order to ensure the longterm survival of the monasteries, benefactors would be necessary to provide money and food, which were exchanged for the monk's prayers and blessings. Also during this time, all monks were required to become ordained priests. Since almost all of a monk's time was spent either in prayer, studying to become priests or in prayer in their cells, they became dependent on these outside benefactors for survival.

The Cistercian reformers felt the dependency on outside benefactors was not inline with the Rules of St. Benedict, which also called for work by their own hands. The reformers also felt that the monasteries were becoming too wealthy and that the monks were not living the austere lives that Benedict required. The solitude they had sought was not possible with benefactors staying at the monasteries and with outside lay people doing the work around the monastery. The Cistercians called for a new focus on manual labor, self-sufficiency, and the institution of lay brothers (non-ordained). The focus on lay brothers provided for monks to do more manual labor, since they were not required to become ordained priests and chant the Psalms. The choir monks (ordained) continued the rigorous prayer schedule while the lay monks provided the manual labor. It was at this time that the Cistercians, in order to save money, stopped dying their habits black. They left them in their natural white color and would become known as the white monks (as opposed to the all black Benedictine habits). These changes required the Cistercian monasteries to become less reliant on outside benefactors and provided a much better opportunity for the solitude and austerity they believed Benedict required to be "in God". The movement toward more austere lives also reduced the financial burden to maintain the monasteries and provide for the monks. These changes, which began with Robert of Molesme, Alberic of Citeaux and Stephen Harding became a reality under Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian order grew and flourished. When Bernard of Clairvaux died in 1153, the Cistercian order began to decline and individual abbots began new reform movements which favored even more austerity. The Trappist reform found its leader in Jean de Rance, the abbot of the La Trappe Abbey in France. This reform focused on even more physical austerity, silence and the removal of meat from the monastic diet.


I will end this blog with some quotes from the Rules of St. Benedict that summarize how the Trappists live their lives and why:


The first degree of humility is prompt obedience.


Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.


He who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.


Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.


And let them first pray together, that so they may associate in peace.

These quotes should give you a good idea of what you must desire if you would want to become a Trappist. Those seeking this lifestyle should desire silence, solitude, prayer, and manual labor, all with the single purpose of being in God. The ultimate yearning of all Trappist monks is do everything for, and in, Christ. So in tomorrow's blog, you will see how their daily schedule is structured to help meet these desires.


Want more insight into the history of the Trappists and the Rule of St Benedict? Below are some reading materials that you might be interested in.



Historical fiction books written by Trappist monk, Fr. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O. Fr. Raymond was a monk at Gethsemani, KY. He joined the monastery in 1936 and lived and wrote with Thomas Merton.

Book One-Three Religious Rebels: Forefathers of the Trappists- The Saga of Citeaux - First Epoch Chronicles the Cistercian reform movement from St Robert of Molesme, to St Alberic to St. Stephen Harding. This book covers the period from 1050-1133

Book Two-The Family That Overtook Christ The life of St Bernard of Clairvaux, the primary reformer of the Cistercians

Book Three-Burnt Out Incense - The Saga of Citeaux - American Epoch - A history of the establishment of the Trappist in Gethsemani, KY to the 1940's.

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